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Jesus emerges from the tomb with an angel above him in this scene from Calvary Assembly’s “The Blood Code,” a musical drama based on the Book of Matthew.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Jesus emerges from the tomb with an angel above him in this scene from Calvary Assembly’s “The Blood Code,” a musical drama based on the Book of Matthew.

The Gospel Code
Bible scholars say differences don’t detract from message


Matthew 28: 2-3

By Paul Huggins · 340-2395

The book of Matthew definitely had the most “wow factor” that Phyllis Sawyer sought for the Resurrection of Jesus.

It’s the only Gospel account to describe an angel descending from heaven accompanied by lightning and an earthquake. And that’s why as producer of Calvary Assembly of God’s annual Easter play, she said she chose Matthew’s description for the church’s musical drama, “The Blood Code.”

“It’s such a high point of our presentation,” she said. “It helps show the victory that we do have through Christ defeating death.”

Considering how dramatically Matthew explains the scene, it seems odd and curious that none of the other three Gospels — Mark, Luke and John — mention an earthquake or that the angel rolled away the stone blocking Jesus’ tomb.

Is this an example of Scripture being inconsistent, as some skeptics argue? Does it discredit the Resurrection, which Christians celebrate today?

It’s not the only biblical difference among the Gospels’ account of the Resurrection:

  • Matthew and Mark mention one angel and Luke and John mention two.

  • Luke leaves out Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus.

  • John says Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene but does not mention the other two women as does Matthew.

    Skeptics declare that the varying accounts as well as other stories in the Gospels point to the fact that the Gospels were written many years after the events occurred and therefore were prone to exaggerations.

    Biblical scholars, judicial experts and practicing Christians, however, say the differences in the four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection actually give the Resurrection more credibility.

    Frank Thielman, Presbyterian professor of divinity at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, compared it to how criminal experts spot a forgery.

    “A sure sign of a forged signature is if you have three signatures and they all look precisely alike,” he said.

    Knowing the audience

    The differences in each Gospel raise questions, but they can be explained, Thielman said, and it starts with knowing the audience of the Gospels.

    Matthew, for example, mentions the earthquake, because he’s writing to Jewish Christians. In keeping with Old Testament traditions, his readers would look for cosmic signs like earthquakes as part of God’s judgment, he said.

    This is also why Matthew uses more Old Testament references than the other Gospels and why he tells that the Jewish leaders made up a story to explain Jesus’ disappearance from the tomb.

    The book of John, on the other hand, tends to be more focused on details and gives testimony of an eyewitness, Thielman said. It’s only John that described how Jesus’ burial clothes were laid in the tomb.

    As for why John’s account of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus differs from Matthew’s, Thielman said it’s probably just that John gives more detail and picks up the story where Matthew ends it.

    Unique perspectives

    Ben Witherington III, New Testament professor at Asbury Methodist Seminary in Kentucky, said readers should also understand that each Gospel is written from a unique perspective based on the writers’ personality and experiences.

    “Part of it is just a matter of editing that one Gospel writer wanted to emphasize over another,” he said, “just like when you have four newspapers today reporting the same story.”

    Each of the accounts, because they are different, make the overall story richer, Witherington said. And that’s why the first century church rejected the Diatesseron, an attempt to combine parts of all four gospels into one harmonious account.

    “Jesus is too complex a figure to be pureed and filtered and nailed down in one particular perspective or account. He’s the man who fits no one formula,” he said.

    Morgan County District Judge David Breland agrees with the scholars that witness accounts have more credibility by having differences. He said he would be suspicious if four witnesses in his court gave exact, word-for-word testimony because logically each person would view it from a unique viewpoint.

    “Even though you have four people telling it from their own perspective, nonetheless, there’s still consistency and there’s a lot of legal proof that it happened,” he said.

    “There were a lot of eyewitnesses,” Breland said, mentioning 500 at one time as stated in I Corinthians 15. “If you had a modern trial, that’s pretty powerful testimony.”

    Had the Gospels been inaccurate, there would have been enough eyewitnesses and people who heard their testimonies to object and stop the Gospels from being spread, Breland added.

    Living eyewitnesses

    Richard Bauckham makes a similar point in his new book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.” The book explains that the Gospels were not based on oral traditions passed down over the years, but rather oral histories by living eyewitnesses who had preserved the life of Jesus through public ministry.

    Like the scholars, Sawyer, wife of Calvary pastor the Rev. George Sawyer, attributed the different accounts of either one or two angels present at the resurrection to the writers having different personalities.

    “In the midst of a situation, some people are better at remembering details than others. Details are very important to me, My husband, he would just say an angel or something was there.”

    Thielman concluded that reaction from the Resurrection probably is the greatest evidence of its authenticity; clearly, something dramatic had to occur for the early church to grow as fast as it did.

    “You have some differences scattered around that, but the core event of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead is what binds these stories together,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the Christian church without an event like this happening.”

    Synopses of the four gospels

    Matthew, written in AD 70 to 80s; author was one of the 12 disciples, the tax collector. Primary audience: Jewish Christians in Galilee. Traces genealogy to Abraham and David to show Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Portrays Jesus as Jewish messiah and king.

    Mark, the earliest gospel, written in the early to mid-60s; author was a close associate of the disciple Peter and likely based his writings on Peter’s teachings. Primary audience: Romans. Gives no genealogy to show Jesus’ accomplishments and not his family are what’s important. Portrays Jesus as a faithful servant.

    Luke, written in A.D. 70 to 80; author was a Gentile, physician, and a friend of the Apostle Paul; based his book on multiple eyewitness reports. Primary audience: Gentiles. Genealogy traces Jesus back to Adam to show Jesus was fully human. Portrays Jesus as the perfect man.

    John, written in later part of the first century; author was the disciple whom Jesus loved; also wrote three epistles and Revelation. Primary audience: Greeks. Genealogy shows Jesus as the eternal word of God. Portrays Jesus as God.

    Sources: New International Version Bible, The Radical Reformission, biblical scholars and teachers

    Paul Huggins

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